The church's character is an integral part of its message as it proclaims and exemplifies the good news. The gospel of love, forgiveness, holiness and peace is seen by others to be credible when it is shared by believers who serve the needy, forgive sinners, stand for justice and make peace in the world. The message and messenger are interrelated, with the full impact of the gospel being felt by words and deeds, and in many cases more by deeds than words, for our lives are letters "known and read by everybody," (2 Cor 3:2). Credibility wanes when others perceive incongruities between the message of the church and its behavior, between what it proclaims and what it does. The result is a credibility gap—the distance between credibility and incredibility, being believable or unbelievable. This gap negatively affects the church's witness to the good news, as the church loses respect among unbelievers, failing to move them from their unbelief.
The Apostle Peter said, "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us," (1 Pet. 2:12). The evangelistic impact of the church is dependent upon its corporate testimony, proving itself as a credible witness to the world.
A faithful presence is first established by the church as it lives as people of integrity--maintaining morals, adhering to values and keeping promises. Integrity is a pattern of sound choices, honest dealings and right actions, regardless of the outcome or consequences. It is a factor of communication included in Aristotle's concept of ethos or ethical character. It is not an image but the substance of sincerity, honesty and morality.
Integrity is an important characteristic of the church because the gospel is truth. It is only reasonable that the church's character and conduct not contradict its message but confirm it. The high ethical quality of the gospel requires a similar quality in those who communicate it, since they are sent as representatives of the King of Kings, as "Christ's ambassadors," (2 Cor. 5:20).
The church is called out from among the world to live uniquely in the world as God's people, "as children of light," (Eph. 5:8). The church is "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God," (1 Pet. 2:9). It is called out along with its leaders to live beyond reproach, to reflect God's holy character, and to personify his absolute truth. Integrity will hardly be found, if it is not found among the people of God.
When the church's actions do not substantiate the gospel but violate its message, a mixed signal is sent to others. The message is confusing because people hear one thing and see something different. Indiscretions such as financial fraud, moral failure and deceit erode the church's credibility.
The world holds the church to a standard, expecting it to practice what it preaches. Christians are viewed as hypocrites when there is a discrepancy between their message and their actions. Consequently, the church's ministry suffers and its credibility is lost. It forfeits its faithful presence and opens itself up to negative criticism.
Therefore, it is imperative that the church make every effort to live by its high standard as the people of God, knowing that God "has saved us and called us to a holy life," (2 Tim. 1:9). When believers fail to live up to their calling, they must have the honesty to admit it, the humility to confess it, and the willingness to make things right.
A faithful presence is established by the church as it is authentic. Authenticity is the quality of being genuine, transparent, natural and real, without pretense. It presents no imitation, erects no facade and wears no mask. It allows others to see the church actually and precisely as it is.
Although the church is called to holiness, it will not be perfect on this side of glory. Thus, it should not give the impression that it is flawless or sinless. Rather, the church should reveal itself as the redeemed community, comprised of sinner-saints, people who are not perfect, just forgiven. Christians should acknowledge their sins, mistakes and weaknesses, confessing that they are equally sinful, needy and dependent upon the grace of God. The church's attitude should be as "one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread."
A judgmental spirit by Christians toward those outside the church causes the credibility gap to widen. Unbelievers may feel condemned, not because of their unbelief or guilt, but because of a pseudo guilt placed upon them by "holier than thou" Christians. Such a legalistic attitude intimidates rather than invites unbelievers to come to faith in Jesus Christ. However, the church must remember that its role is not to pass judgment on unbelievers, for "God will judge those outside," (1 Cor. 7:13).
The authentic Christian life is a relationship with God, knowing him personally, not a religion, attempting to reach him by following a moral code or sacred ritual. Jesus Christ came to impart life—abundant life as a result of knowing him. He said, "Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent," (John 17:3). It is God's desire that his people enjoy this life, celebrate it, and have genuine fun. The church demonstrates the authentic Christian life when it lives abundantly, enjoying a life that is full and meaningful.
The church should also acknowledge the hope that it has in the midst of temptation, problems, trials, pain, tragedy, sorrow and death. This is not merely a temporal hope to cope with the stress of this world, but an eternal hope that transcends this world to the next, "the hope of eternal life," (Titus 3:7). This hope produces an optimism about the future regardless of present circumstances. The gospel is a message of hope, and that is good news, capturing the attention of those who are outside of faith in Jesus Christ.
A faithful presence is established by the church as it proves itself reliable. Reliability is being faithful, dependable and trustworthy. Reliability is basic to all relationships, observed in the character of God and the promises of the Bible. It is a magnetic quality which attracts people since nearly everyone responds to reliable friends.
Many people today struggle with reliability, wavering in their commitments, moving out of relationships rather than working at them. This affects marriages, family ties, friendships and working relationships. Yet, if the church is to be a faithful witness in the world, Christians must establish meaningful relationships with others, founded upon trust, respect and concern for them.
Reliability is important because the gospel is primarily spread not between strangers but between persons who know and trust each other, between believable Christians and family and friends. When a high level of trust has been established, people are more open and receptive to the gospel since they are hearing the words of someone they care for and believe in.
Reliability, of course, requires availability, a commitment on the part of Christians to be there for others when they need someone. It may be when they are in a crisis, a trial, when they are hurting, need help or some tangible form of assistance. Such availability by the church opens doors to enter their lives and provides a means to share the gospel with them.
As the church is reliable, it develops a positive reputation, known for its willingness and availability to help. It may be the ministry of a Christian who provides child care for a friend during a doctor's appointment, prepares a meal for a family after the death of a relative, takes an elderly widow to a mechanic when her car is being repaired, or mows a neighbor's lawn when he is hospitalized.
Such good works, however, are not limited to individuals. The church can corporately minister to the needs of people, providing social services such as food pantries, marriage and family counseling, literacy and educational programs, medical assistance, crisis counseling, flood relief, and shelters for the abused and homeless. These ministries show that the church cares for people. In response, people's respect for the church grows, viewing the church as a trusted friend. Indeed, good works compliment the good news.
|Charity by William-Adolphe Bouguereau|
A faithful presence is established by the church as it demonstrates agape love. Charity is love in action, giving unconditionally and sacrificially to meet the needs of others. It is not an emotion but behavior; it is not love felt but love applied. The Apostle John described it by saying, "let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth," (1 John 3:18). It is conduct characteristic of affection.
"Love comes from God," (1 John 4:7). It has been revealed in his nature, demonstrated in the sacrificial death of his Son, and imparted to his people by the Holy Spirit. This divine love enables the church to love him, and to love others. As the church receives and experiences this supernatural love, it in turn may impart it to unbelievers. In doing so, they see the reality of a loving God, and will be drawn to him through his people, for there is nothing more attractive than love.
God's love is unconditional, unswerving and unrelenting, giving but expecting nothing in return. It does not depend upon the lovability of the object, but wholly upon the character of the one who loves. The Apostle Paul described love, saying:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails, (1 Cor. 13:4-8).
This love requires that the church give of itself to God and, therefore, to the care and welfare of others. It ministers like God who "loves the alien, giving him food and clothing," (Deut. 10:18). It is a love that feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, invites in the stranger, clothes the needy, looks after the sick, and visits the prisoner. It gives unselfishly of its time, energy and resources, denying material goods and pleasures for the sake of others. Divine love is charity that moves beyond giving gifts to making sacrifices.
A letter written to the Roman Emperor Hadrian (AD 117-138) describes this sacrificial love by the church:
The Christians know and trust their God. They placate those who oppress them and make their enemies their friends. They do good to their enemies. Their wives are absolutely pure and their daughters are modest. Their men abstain from unlawful marriages, and all other impurity. If any of them have bondwomen or children, they persuade them to become Christians for the love they have toward them; and when they become so, they call them "brother" without distinction. They love one another. They rescue the orphan from him who does him violence. He who has gives ungrudgingly to him that has not. If they see a stranger, they take him into their dwellings and rejoice over him as over a real brother; for they do not call each other brother after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God. If any among them is poor and needy, and they do not have food to spare, they fast two or three days that they may supply him with necessary food. But, the deeds which they do, they do not proclaim to the ears of the multitude, but they take care that no man shall perceive them. Thus they labor to become righteous. Truly, this is a new people and there is something divine in them.
This love that Christians have for others and for each other distinguishes them in the world as followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another," (John 13:35). The mutual love that believers possess is a testimony of the reconciling power of the gospel and of the living presence of the risen Christ.
Love is one of the most powerful forces in the world. It is not only a witness to unbelievers as they observe the love of Christ in the church, but it is also a means to minister to people, to enter their lives, and to demonstrate God's love tangibly. It is a force to change resistant attitudes toward Jesus Christ, his gospel, and his church. People respond to love.
Finally, a credible presence is established by the church as it lives in unity. Unity is living in harmony with one another, in solidarity with the people of God. It is neither uniformity where all conform, nor unanimity, where all agree. Unity is to be "one in spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel," (Phil. 1:27). It is not organizational but spiritual oneness with brothers and sisters in Christ who are vastly diverse.
The church's credibility as a witness to the gospel is dependent upon its unity as a body of believers. Jesus prayed for this unity when he asked, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me," (John 17:23). The church's oneness is an apologetic to persuade unbelievers that Jesus is the Son of God since such harmony among human beings is nothing short of a miracle.
Unity is a choice that has a costly alternative—disunity. Feuds, politicking, gossip, bickering, back-stabbing and power plays destroy the unity and credibility of the church. This is the reason why Christians must choose to dwell together in unity, sacrificing personal agendas and social allegiances for the will of God and the mind of Christ. Since unity is not automatic, believers must "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace," (Eph. 4:3).
The church should strive for unity even though it lives with the struggles, tensions and imperfections of sinner-saints. Despite all its flaws and failures, the church is God's agency to spread the good news, capturing the attention of unbelievers because of its unity—a unity that comes from the presence of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although the church is not all that it could be, and its fellowship is far from perfect, it remains "the pillar and foundation of the truth," (1 Tim. 3:15).
The faithful presence of the church in the world is integral to the task of making disciples of all nations. The church is perceived as a credible witness when it is characterized by integrity, authenticity, reliability, charity and unity, predisposing people to hear the gospel as good news. The church is called to be the redeemed community that reflects and reveals the Redeemer.